Arts Cuts Protest

We hit the streets last Friday to find out why protesters believe cuts to the arts could leave us all culturally bereft

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At the Pompidou centre in Paris, whole wings of the National Gallery of Modern Art are closed to the public on a rotational basis because the French government’s interest in funding preserves of artistic ingenuity is running cold. Back in the UK, a protest movement continues to stand up to the coalition government’s cuts, which includes a massive withdrawal of funding from arts institutions and arts tuition in schools and universities. The arts and humanities are undoubtedly seen by the coalition government—despite its platitudes to the arts before the election — as being less profitable and therefore less worthy of public money than science and industry. Many people are rightly concerned that imposing a market-based ideology to arts and education could leave us all spiritually, intellectually, and perhaps even economically less wealthy.

Outside the Bank of England on Friday, a small group of lovey-dovey youngsters had come with wigs, costumes and music to express their anger at the people who may – directly or indirectly – be withholding the funds for the writing of their next West End smash or their younger siblings’ music tuition, which is being totally withdrawn from schools. The ‘Dance Against Deficit Lies’ was organised by the people who, affiliated with the student occupation of University College London, seem unable to simply be anywhere without having to occupy it, as they did to a City pub afterwards (causing little disruption). If nothing else, they remind us of the long and faithful marriage between protesting and drinking. And being violent, but they made a point of specifically not doing that.

So in light of the Treasury choosing to show mercy – to the tune of nearly £1 trillion – to the merciless financial industry, the country’s biggest cultural givers will take the hit. That makes sense. So the Arts Council (annual budget  £0.3 billion)—which funds everything from the National Theatre to the man in Edinburgh reciting Gogol in a bath full of treacle – will have 30 per cent less spending money and 50% less for its operational costs. All institutions funded by the Arts Council will receive a mandatory 6.9 per cent snip, but the Council’s strategic fund for new ideas will be 64 per cent worse off. This mighty shrinking of the strategic fund threatens the future of events such as the Manchester International Festival, which hosts work created exclusively for the festival by emerging and international artists. But flagship events like MIF receive a lot of money from the National Lottery  – whose contributions aren’t affected by the cuts – and private donations, so they will probably soldier on, since government funding is only one source of their income.

The Arts Council still hasn’t decided which theatre company or art gallery near you will be playing its final encore pretty soon. In all likelihood, it will be the local creative spaces for young artists and performers. The kind of place that doesn’t win any Oscars, but which gives time, space and resources to kids most in need of them, will be closed or hamstrung by local councils – the same councils, it should be said, whose similarly drastic budget cuts are forcing them to make decisions between, say, staffing a nursing home or a library. It’s a choice between a piss or shit sandwich. So safe-houses of creativity like the Salmon centre in Bermondsey, which provides an art studio, a recording studio and legion social services for local youngsters, will go down the toilet without heroic volunteer efforts.

Government funding for non-science courses will all but disappear, leaving the arts and humanities departments competing for students and their tuition fees. Nigel Carrington, Rector of the University of the Arts London, said: “If the Government goes ahead with plans to cut all teaching funding for arts, humanities and social sciences, this university will be disproportionately affected. Specialist art, design and communication courses are expensive to teach, but they are of great value to the UK both economically and culturally, and their cost should not be borne by students alone.”

“Cuts on this scale,” added Tate director Nicholas Serota, “must inevitably result in a much smaller number of galleries and theatres, fewer chances for young people to broaden their experience of life, and a savage reduction in support for individual writers, artists and composers.” One arts body certain to have vanished by April (although its spending plan doesn’t expire until 2012) is the UK Film Council. After ten years of funding pretty much every decent British film in the last ten years, plus screenings and educational projects, it will be absorbed and repackaged into the much smaller British Film Institute. Its people don’t know as yet—because I’d imagine they’re all too busy applying for new jobs – exactly which areas will be culled, chopped or saved. But the slice of Film Council that hasn’t been eaten by the BFI will be palmed over to the kind of public-private initiatives that have already poisoned local and national government with their flagrant corporatism and belching urge for more money.

Outside the Bank on Friday, even the bad guys were sympathetic to the dancing folks. “I did a degree in English,” said John Atkinson, 25, who works for the cape-wearing villains at Lloyd’s (the insurers, not the equally despised bank). “And it’s seen as a parallel to the business attitude. But the cuts are neglecting a personal right to choose where people want to go with their career. I think it’s unfair.”

Photography Craig Thomas

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